eCoaching Tip 111 Generating Energy and Purpose Using Specific Learning Goals

September 4 2013 (Tweaked April 19 2021)

eCoaching Tip 111 Generating Energy and Purpose Using Specific Learning Goals


Do you make good use of the learning goals for your course?  You don’t want to let them sit ignored in a dusty unused corner of your syllabus. You want to feature them, discuss them, analyze them and put them to work. An important task for students early in a course is to process and discuss those goals and see which ones really fit where they are. For your part, an important teaching presence task is to refer to and highlight those goals often and prominently within the course experiences.

Is this hard to do? Not really. In the first week, you probably have a discussion forum that focuses on Social Presence. This is the forum in which you and your students share who you are, where you live, and what is important to you in your work and daily life.

This tip suggests a second discussion forum dedicated to Cognitive Presence. In this forum learners discuss the learning goals for the course, and what these goals can mean to them. In this forum, students also customize one or two learning goals and restate the goals in very specific and personal terms.

This tip describes how you can accomplish this, and why setting specific learning goals is so powerful, useful and energizing to the learning experience.

(Note: In this tip we use the term learning goals to refer to what students hope to learn and achieve during the term of a course; other oft-used terms are learning objectives or learning outcomes.)

Three Ways to Launch a  Discussion Forum on Learning Goals

Here are three examples of how you might launch a discussion forum on the learning goals for your course, beginning the work of cognitive presence. Your instructions to the learners might look something like the following:

  • Example 1:“Examine the learning outcomes for the course and restate the two outcomes that are most important to you and why they make sense to you. It helps if you envision yourself talking to a friend, spouse, colleague, or mentor about what you are going to be learning and doing. This forces clear thinking.

o   Note 1: This activity encourages the students to translate the learning outcomes into expressions of purpose and statement that have real meaning to them.

  • Example 2:“Think about the time and effort you are going to be investing in the content and work of this course. How do you want your time and effort to make a difference in your life?  Complete this sentence:  This is how I want to be different when this course is over?  I want to…   “

o   Note 2: You might give a couple of example statements relevant to your course content and purposes, such as,

    • “I want to develop a personal code of ethics that will guide me in my life and in my work as a marketing executive.”
    • “I want to be able to develop and discuss my personal philosophy about the meaning of life.”
    • “I want to be able to solve difficult math problems with confidence.”  
    • “I want to be able to compose and write a business memo with the confidence that I am communicating effectively.”
    • “I want to be able to design a software program for a particular use.” 
    • “I want to be knowledgeable about how to appreciate a work of art.” “I want to understand why art is important to people, and what difference it can make to me.”
    • “I want to develop a beginning level of expertise in a specific period of history, economics, math, music.”
    • “I want to be able to read a research report and be able to judge with some accuracy whether the research was well done and what the research means to the discipline.”
    • “I want to be knowledgeable about how to be successful in business leadership and business processes in another part of the world, such as Indonesia, China, etc.”
    • “I want to be ready to lead in a particular context at a particular time.
  • Example 3:“Select one of the learning goals and state why achieving that goal is really important to you?”

o   Note 3:  One of your goals as a mentor, guide, and coach of learning is to find out where the students are coming from and where they want to go for their life and work. A discussion forum focused on Cognitive Presence helps to illuminate just what students already know and what they are ready to learn.  Remember Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development that states that a learner’s zone of proximal development is what the students are really ready to learn. A forum on cognitive presence attempts to gather two data points:  Where is the student’s head and desires on this topic at this time? What is the intersection of the intended learning outcomes with where the student is coming from?

The Power of Specificity

Let’s think about why having students write down very specific learning goals for themselves works so well. The power of writing things down is a major component of the approach used by the stress-free productivity guru, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done as well as many other articles and tools on productivity. Allen stresses that the very best question any of us should ask ourselves when faced with a seemingly mountain of complexities, is to answer the question, “What is my next step?”  In working with learning goals, the first step is to be very clear about envisioning what the desired end result is. Then the activities, the learning experiences in the course have a purpose.  Each activity, each assignment is a step towards achieving that goal.

The Benefits of Specificity

One of the questions frequently asked by faculty is, “But how do I get my students to read the assignments”; or “How do I get my students to engage with the content?” The answer partially comes from having the students themselves articulate, state, discuss, and choose their own learning goals. This is not a magic bullet, but it helps students to consider and think about why they are taking a specific course, other than to meet the goals determined by a curriculum committee, or the goal of earning another three credits towards a degree.

Over the course of my career I have had an opportunity to see how many faculty introduce learning goals and outcomes to students. Far and away the most frequently used approach goes something like this. If it is a campus-based course, the faculty member will use a “butterfly approach.”  They put the learning goals up on a slide, and then wave their hands, saying, “These are the learning goals for the course, be sure to read them” and click, they are gone.

In an online course, faculty may say in an introduction to the first unit, “Be sure to read the learning outcomes which are in the syllabus which is a very important document.” Or the learning outcomes are never mentioned and a very valuable learning opportunity is missed.  Students remain generally clueless as to the course expectations, or purposes, other than that it is required, it is a prerequisite, or because their mother told them they had to take the course. (This is a comment actually heard from a student once).

As we start a course, we really want to invest time discussing the question, “What makes sense for our students to hope to achieve in the course of a term?”


Being specific about learning goals has other benefits, such as preparing one’s brain for what is to come, creating a framework, an open structure for the knowledge, skills and attitudes. Recall the memory palace mentioned by St. Augustine in Confessions (Book X).  Having a mental place prepared for the issues, questions and problems of a discipline makes a difference.

It is also a good idea to revisit the course learning goals at additional points in the course such as the early middle of a course and then again in the late middle. Journals and blogs are good places for students to track their progress on their customized goals. Students might also incorporate their progress on these personal goals in their exit statements, if you use them. This recurring focus keeps goals and core concepts front and center in your course. Try it and see how it works for you and your students.


Allen, D. (2015). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2 ed.): Penguin Books.  Also, here is a TED talk by David Allen from October 30, 2012. You may also want to explore GTD for Academics(GTD=Getting Things Done.)

Fetsch, R. J. and Flashman, R. H.  (1984, 2008) The Successful Person’s Guide to Time Management. Note:  Current pub number is FCS7-101  A handy 20-page booklet on setting goals, and managing one’s time.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher